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Antonia White's second novel is an unofficial sequel to 'Frost in May', though her heroine is now named Clara Batchelor, Clara's family are sketched in much greater detail to Nanda's, and Clara is not expelled from her convent (she has to leave due to her father's financial difficulties after her mother becomes seriously ill. 'The Lost Traveller' follows Clara's life through from the death of her grandfather to her last term at convent school, a summer vacation in which she begins to experience a longing to grow up and find love, and also forms a rather-too-close bond with her possessive father, her brief time at St Mark's School for Girls (a fictional version of St Paul's Girls' School) where she impresses all with her literary knowledge, but drops out of taking her Cambridge University examination, and her time as a governess to the small son of a wealthy Catholic family, the disastrous end of which leads to her making an impetuous decision that could change the course of her life. Unusually for White, who tends to narrate her novels almost exclusively from the heroine's point of view, sections of the book are also written from the points of view of Clara's clever, devout and inwardly rather tormented father Claude; her depressed mother Isabel, who hides her misery behind a mask of frivolity; and her elderly great aunts, who live in the beautiful Sussex cottage Pagets Fold, Clara's favourite place in the world. White explores Clara's relationships with each of these characters in sensitive detail, and also writes very well about her various friendships - with aristocratic intellectual Catholic Nicole, flamboyant Patsy and scholarly Ruth - and her difficult and unsatisfactory first romantic relationship with Archie Hughes-Follett, who wants to be her lover, but who she really sees as the big brother she never had.

This book is a masterly, and often lovely picture of the confused period of adolescence. Characterization is as strong - even stronger - perhaps - as in 'Frost in May', and White is particularly good on Clara's father (a man of violent passions, who clings to the Catholic Church as a means of restraining them) and her mother Isabel, whose seemingly frivolous exterior hides a perceptive, witty and very loving personality, and who is the only person (apart from perhaps the unhappy Archie) to offer Clara unconditional love. Isabel and Claude's relationship, and Isabel's partial desire to escape her life altogether, were also very well portrayed. White also works in big world events - World War I in particular - with a sensitive hand, and shows very well Clara's need for her Catholic faith, but also her sense of being imprisoned by it. There are some keen observations of social class - Clara loves her rustic Sussex relatives, but feels embarrassed by her own lower-middle-class background, and envies the wealthy Catholic family to whom she becomes governess - and some lovely writing on literature. And any adolescent girl will recognize Clara's yearning both to make something of her life creatively and to be loved.

My only criticism would be about how the story develops when Clara leaves St Paul's. Antonia White never seems to have spoken out completely about why she herself (Clara's life follows Antonia White's very closely in most respects) ducked out of applying for Cambridge at the last moment - and we never learn with Clara, either. The novel jumps very abruptly: one moment Clara is longing for Cambridge, the next she's thrown in school for no good reason to become a governess, having declared for years that she does not want to teach. It would have been interesting to have a bit more insight into her reasoning. And while I can see why White needed the 'coup de theatre' that ended Clara's work as a governess (Clara has to have a very good reason for what she does next) it somehow doesn't feel entirely authentic - possibly because (unlike a lot of the incidents in this book) it never happened in real life. It also meant that White got in a bit of a fix with the book's sequel, in which she retreated to work much closer to autobiography.

But I have to say neither of these things spoilt the book for me - it's still an excellent novel, which shows that White did have real imaginative powers, as well as a strong ability to turn her own life into fiction. A great book both for teenagers and for adult readers.
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on 26 April 2013
This is the second of 4 books, the first being FROST IN MAY. The initial story is one of the life of a girl who is brought up in the Catholic faith and attends a convent school. Superbly well written.
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